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A big question for the twenty-first century, maybe the biggest one city people will face: What can we do about mass transit (of people) systems?
Definition: a mass transit system is one designed to get controlled flow of large numbers of people from point A to point B. These systems do not allow individuals to have any control over the vehicle used.
The movement of freight and goods is a separate issue and since the destinations do not often coincide it is a separate problem
How will future technology help mass transit systems? Will we need them in the future?
Why a mass transit system? Why not masses of individual travel arrangements?
Some claim there are environmental issues and mass transit systems reduce “carbon foot prints” etc.
These claims may be valid but they often ignore the environmental cost of producing the system and its vehicles. They also often ignore the movement of mass transit vehicles when they are empty or carry very low passenger numbers. The maintenance and even the administration of mass systems also have environmental costs.
A more important reason is that the road widths in cities, especially cities that have grown gradually over a thousand years, would not be enough to cope and also no one would know what to do with all the mass of individual vehicles once they arrive.
The capital costs involved in building both road systems and mass transit systems are vast.
Firstly, we have to ask if such systems are needed? And more importantly, will they be needed in 25 years time? 50 years time? Or 100 years time.
At the present time, the mass transit systems are overloaded. They were designed to meet a forecast use that has been exceeded, they are overloaded and thus uncomfortable and inefficient. How to get accurate forecasts of future need and use is one of the larger problems when considering this question.
The present population is increasing and it is expected it will carry on increasing but the growth in population can not continue indefinitely; nor does an increasing population automatically mean an increasing demand for mass transit.
The lead time for the work to increase capacity on any system is now so long that it is often longer than the time period for forecast use.
The cost in terms of money, land use, environmental damage and disruption while building all mean we should start thinking of new approaches to the problem.
It is a reasonable assumption that in 100 years time we will be in a period of falling population, a time where nearly all “work” is automated, an era where clerical administration is all carried out by computerized artificially intelligent systems and not by human beings. Those people “employed” will probably work from their homes or in small units of cooperation and communication.
The commuter will be a thing of the past. The need to move thousands of people from A to B at a given time, and back again at a later given time, will no longer exist.
Journeys will be for pleasure rather than work, the time spread of need will be greater. The advent of fusion power generated electricity will probably mean that all personal travel is carried out in electric vehicles. So in a hundred years from now, we probably will not need a mass transit system as defined at the start.
For the next 25 years we may still need a transit system but what is the point of improving existing systems when the improvements take 10 years to reach operation and then have a demand of only 15 years left? The need is for improvement within the next five years and improvements that cope with the demands for next 20 years.
Why have city work places grown to the extent that tens of thousands of “commuters” travel to the city to work at the same time, approximately, every week day? How long before the need to do this ends?
The vast growth of government bureaucracies, the growth in the complexity and scope of banking, pension and insurance industries, the growth in the administration of capitalism, the concentration of businesses that “service” those working in these enterprises have caused the need for transit systems.
Manufacturing is no longer carried out in city centers. At one time they were but then the administration of these businesses was carried out by the owners and managers. These productive enterprises have left cities now.
As administrative automation becomes the norm, and so the number of people becomes less. The “service” businesses will have to change to become pleasure focused not commuter worker focused.
The combination of these factors will reduce the numbers traveling to and from cities and also spread the time “window” at which they do it.
So what can we do quickly that will work for the next 25 years and not be expensively redundant after 25 years? What ever we do, the design must allow for the changes that will occur. The systems must be flexible.
The present systems are based on rails. Overground or underground, they depend on carriages moving on rails. Even “tram” systems run on fixed routes and so are effectively on rails. They depend on getting people to converge at fixed entry points and to leave at other fixed exit points.
The present systems are also based on electricity. The energy consumed in causing movement is electrically transmitted.
When the generation of electricity is done by use of fusion power (IF, big bloody, IF the control is not in the hands of one multinational profit making company) it will be cheap and clean and so if allied to wave transmitted systems (wave transmitted is sending electricity in the same way that radio and TV are sent out and received now) it will be a sensible way of converting energy into motion.
As a side issue, it is time there was a British research company, owned by the government; that is, owned by the people of Britain and making money by holding patents on its inventions. Solve and patent the problems with fusion power, the royalties and license fees would mean we could abolish income tax. Since this research company is not to be owned by any other commercial company and is not to be indebted to any banks, it can be honest in its research, no proving something the marketing people say is right. It can be honest in its claims for a finding. It can use the best brains at British universities and fund university research with the results owned by the British tax payer. The only problem is making sure the bureaucrats do not get control and bury it in non-productive paperwork. It must be run and manged by scientists, not by a “Sir Humphrey” department of a thousand civil servants.
Trams, that is electrically powered road vehicles obtaining the electrical power from an external supply (usually over head wires), would appear to be less successful in practice than in theory. Cambridge and Edinburgh have relatively recently introduced some form of tram public transport. The Cambridge version was vastly over its original capital budget and several years late in starting
There is some work being done on “wave-wireless” transmission of electrical energy. It has some inherent technical and public safety issues to overcome. If these are overcome then trams could be made that went on any road and not need expensive over head wires. This would be an extension of or replacement for existing bus services and while it helps the environment (assuming the transmission safety problems are solved) they could not replace the existing overground or underground rail services. They could not cope with the present volume of need. 25 years in the future as demand for capacity decreases they could replace some rail systems. In the short term (next five years) trams will not solve the existing problems.
Increasing the carrying capacity and speed of the existing rail network is the more obvious short term solution but this carries a huge capital cost. Extending stations, most of which were never designed for the capacity of traffic involved, will be hideously expensive, just think of the additional land required at stations built near or in centers of larger towns. Making trains faster will involve the redesign and relaying of the rail track, or accepting reduced safety levels which is not going to happen. The cost and sheer inertia that grips all public building work will mean nothing can be introduced within five years anyway.
Could we introduce “double decker” commuter rail carriages? Not unless we change all the overhead electrical systems and all the bridges and tunnels that the trains go through, this will take longer and cost more that it is worth.
There is no point in improving flow of traffic towards a main line but not improving the flow along the main line. Even if the road network is improved and the use of coaches for commuting is increased, the problem will still be what to do with all the coach passengers when they arrive at a city terminal but still need to get to their place of work. The metro systems in every city are dreadful in the peak volume periods. A comprehensive solution is needed.
Replacing all rail and all underground rails with a moving belt-moving walkway (travelator systems, as used in airports) but on a vast scale needs technical evaluation. The cost would be huge but so would its passenger capacity. We would need to solve the problems of the speed at which individuals could join or leave the main flow. Also, the need for seating and weather protection since journey times could be over an hour. At least if they replaced the railways the land is available.
How about decreasing the demand, tax incentives to firms to move out of cities? The banks are not going to like that, the value of city center properties will crash and financial chaos will follow.
Staggering the working hours of commuters has been tried but this requires people to change their mindset and it makes direct interaction between people harder. Speeding up the replacement of people with automation will reduce demand but at a colossal cost to the people in lost jobs, lost personal self-esteem and a huge increase in unemployment for the nation to cope with.
This is one of the most intractable problems facing urban life. The cost benefit analysis has to be over the next 50 years and this renders all major solutions unworkable.